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How Moses Shaped America

The Ten Commandments teach that freedom depends on law.

"We are in the presence of a lot of Moseses," Barack Obama said on March 4, 2007, three weeks after announcing his candidacy for President. He was speaking in Selma, Ala., surrounded by civil rights pioneers. Obama cast his run for the White House as a fulfillment of the Moses tradition of leading people out of bondage into freedom. "I thank the Moses generation, but we've got to remember that Joshua still had a job to do. As great as Moses was ... he didn't cross over the river to see the promised land."

Eight months into his presidency, Obama might want to give Moses a second look. On issues from health care to Afghanistan, the President faces doubts and rebellions, from an entrenched pharaonic establishment on one hand and restless, stiff-necked followers on the other. There's good reason, then, for Obama to heed the leadership lessons of history's greatest leader. Like presidential predecessors from Washington to Reagan, Obama can use the Moses story to help guide Americans in troubled times. From the Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers, the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Americans have turned to Moses in periods of crisis because his narrative offers a road map of peril and promise. (See pictures of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)

Plight of the Pilgrims
The Moses story opens in the 13th century B.C.E. with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. After the pharaoh orders the slaughter of all Israelite male babies, Moses is floated down the Nile, picked up by the pharaoh's daughter and raised in the palace. An adult Moses murders an Egyptian for beating "one of his kinsmen," then flees to the desert, where, later, a voice in a burning bush recruits him to free the Israelites. This moment represents Moses' first leadership test: Will he cling to his unburdened life or attempt to free a people enslaved for centuries?

The plight of the Israelites resonated with the earliest American settlers. For centuries, the Catholic Church had banned the direct reading of Scripture. But the Protestant Reformation, combined with the printing press, brought vernacular Bibles to everyday readers. What Protestants discovered was a narrative that reminded them of their sense of subjugation by the church and appealed to their dreams of a Utopian New World. The Pilgrims stressed this aspect of Moses. When the band of Protestant breakaways left England in 1620, they described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. On the Atlantic, they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as "Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt." And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea. (See 10 surprising facts about the world's oldest Bible.)

By the time of the Revolution, the theme of beleaguered people standing up to a superpower had become the go-to narrative of American identity. The two best-selling books of 1776 featured Moses. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, called King George the "hardened, sullen tempered pharaoh." Samuel Sherwood, in The Church's Flight into the Wilderness, said God would deliver the colonies from Egyptian bondage. The Moses image was so pervasive that on July 4, after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Congress asked Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to propose a seal for the United States. Their recommendation: Moses, leading the Israelites through the Red Sea as the water overwhelms the pharaoh. In their eyes, Moses was America's true Founding Father.

But escaping bondage proved to be only half the story. After the Israelites arrive in the desert, they face a period of lawlessness, which prompts the Ten Commandments. Only by rallying around the new order can the people become a nation. Freedom depends on law.

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See pictures of John 3:16 in pop culture.